by Brian Scott Lipton
Jump on or stay off – that’s the question for theatergoers considering attending the latest revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1945 musical warhorse “Carousel,” which currently beckons at the Imperial Theatre.
So, here’s the quickish answer: Those viewers who adore every song in the score, every scene in the script and prefer (or insist) on a completely traditional production will find Jack O’Brien’s somewhat streamlined revival a bit of a bumpy ride. Meanwhile, I suspect most audiences will be absolutely thrilled by the superior singing of the ultra-talented cast, led by Joshua Henry and Jessie Mueller, as well as the stunning, highly athletic choreography of Justin Peck (best known for his work with New York City Ballet). Indeed, the show’s many dance sequences (some added for this production) definitely make the show move in unexpected ways – even if the work itself may ultimately fail to move you.
In part, that’s less the fault of the material (although Henry and Mueller unfortunately have less-than-incendiary chemistry) than the questionable wisdom of putting on a show in 2018 which involves a man who hits his wife and daughter. Furthermore, that issue – perhaps the ultimate hot-button topic in the #metoo age — is made infinitely more complicated by the fact that Henry, who plays hot-tempered carnival barker Billy Bigelow, is African-American.
Indeed, one wonders throughout the show if O’Brien thinks that Henry’s race (and possible mistreatment by the surrounding white community) is meant to be a mitigating factor for this behavior, since it’s hard to tell from the production if this is merely color-blind casting or a social statement. Either way, however, there’s no question that Henry’s menacing yet vulnerable portrayal of Billy and his gorgeous vocalizing (I’ve rarely heard a better “Soliloquy”) may well minimize your concerns. (Indeed, I would bet good money on Henry taking home this year’s Tony Award!)
As for Mueller, who sounds glorious as well, she has seemingly been directed to play Billy’s love interest, the quirky millworker Julie Jordan, as a willing victim — or perhaps a girl so naïve that she believes that such abusive behavior comes with the marital territory. To be generous, her Julie could be seen as a selfless soul – one whose sole purpose on earth is to be supportive of the inwardly fragile Billy –but that’s asking audiences to leap like the sheep mentioned in “June’s Bustin’ Out All Over” to its own conclusion. And while Mueller (deliberately) doesn’t project the luminosity of such predecessors as Shirley Jones or Kelli O’Hara, her lower-key portrayal strikes me as decidedly genuine.
With the Billy-Julie dynamic a bit off-kilter, one naturally focuses a bit more on the other players in the piece, most notably Julie’s best pal, the sassy Carrie Pipperidge (played with scene-stealing gusto by the fabulous Lindsay Mendez) who weds slightly stuffy fisherman Enoch Snow (a superbly cast Alexander Gemignani). And, while the great opera diva Renee Fleming has little chance to act as Julie’s kindly cousin Nettie, you wait impatiently for any chance to hear her sing. As expected, she delivers brilliantly whenever she opens her mouth, especially on “June” and the gorgeous “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
In smaller roles, Amar Ramassar, a New York City Ballet principal, doesn’t convince as the villainous Jigger Craigin, but his dancing is truly extraordinary (especially in the extended “Blow High, Blow Low” sequence); John Douglas Thompson (who really doesn’t need to be lurking around the stage before his Act II big entrance) is customarily excellent as the kindly yet no-nonsense Starkeeper; Margaret Colin is suitably shrewish as carnival owner Mrs. Mullin; and dancers Brittany Pollack (as Julie and Billy’s teenaged daughter Louise) and Andrei Chagas (as the non-speaking Fairground Boy who seduces her) execute Peck’s lovely Act II ballet with finesse.
Indeed, as much as Peck’s choreography is full of complexity –with hints of Agnes DeMille (the show’s original choreographer), Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd and George Balanchine – O’Brien’s direction is often painfully simple, as are Santo Loquasto’s undistinguished sets and Ann Roth’s pleasant costumes.
Still, since “Carousel” doesn’t come to town every day (its last full-scale revival was at the Vivian Beaumont in 1994), I say buy your ticket and take your chances!
Photos: Julieta Cervantes
Carousel is currently at the Imperial Theatre (249 W.45thStreet). Visit www.telecharge.comfor tickets. Running Time: 2 hrs. 40 min. (with intermission)